A long-running land dispute turned violent over the weekend as villagers in Kampot province’s Decho Aphivat commune clashed with representatives of an agriculture company who had been ordered to tear down their homes.
Video from the confrontation on Friday shows workers with First Bio-Tech Agricultural (Cambodia) Co Ltd tearing down half-built homes, villagers pulling a worker off his motorbike and beating him, and others breaking the windshield of a company car.
Friday’s violent incident follows a number of other tense confrontations over the past two months in which residents of Chrey Bak village have tangled with soldiers and Military Police protecting land granted in a 2005 economic land concession (ELC) to the company, which is owned by tycoon Chan Sothea.
According to Seang Chanthorn, 62, her family and others had lived on the land that now belongs to the company for five years before being kicked out in 2012. They came back in recent months to reclaim it and to rebuild their homes, she said.
Now, “we can only watch and see our homes brought down”, Chanthorn said. “We do not dare to challenge them because they have guns.”
But local authorities said that the land rightfully belongs to Sothea’s company, which was given 10,000 hectares bordering Bokor National Park in the 2005 ELC. They contend that families descended on the area in 2012 and hurriedly built homes before a national land titling programme began.
Decho Aphivat Commune Chief San Kriya said that a small percentage of those villagers have returned, but that the majority had never actually lived there before.
He also denied accusations that he had taken bribes as first clerk of the commune during the land titling effort after the protesting villagers claimed that they weren’t given titles because they didn’t pay off the right people.
“I did not take even 100 riel,” he said. “The ones who say I took money, say it to me and in front of the law. This is defamation against me.”
Kriya said the villagers began moving in from surrounding provinces in July and that some had brought machetes, axes and slingshots to confrontations with company workers.
He added that the company, which was forced by the government to give up 7,000 hectares of its concession, had upheld its contractual obligation to use the land for growing cassava, cashews and other crops.
Authorities said three villagers were arrested in connection with the violence last week – Proeung Pran, Sar Sey and Chea Sytha – and authorities are looking to arrest more villagers who they believe incited the confrontations.
Heng Phearak, an Adhoc investigator in the province, said the human rights group is monitoring the situation, and that the villagers are “very angry”, although he noted that it appeared the company does indeed have rights to the land.
Calls made to First Bio-Tech Agricultural (Cambodia) Co Ltd late Sunday night were not returned.
Kampot Provincial Military Police Commander Keo Sophal said a report about the incident had been made and sent to the court, but declined to comment further.
Kampot Deputy Provincial Police Chief Sao Samoeun confirmed that Military Police and soldiers had agreed to do security for the company, a practice that is technically illegal but is common throughout the Kingdom.
Video from earlier this month shows about 30 Chrey Bak villagers on company land yelling at a group of soldiers, who then fired shots into the air to scare them off.